The Bye Bye Blackbirds
Boxer At Rest
Perhaps lazily, but not inaccurately, labelled as “power-pop”, The Bye Bye Blackbirds were formed by guitarist and vocalist Bradley Skaught, with their debut EP Honeymoon released in 2006. Boxer at Rest is their fifth full-length release. Previous band members have included Ian Robertson, Chuck Lindo and William Duke, and the current line up includes founding member Lenny Gill, Aaron Rubin, Jozef Becker (once a member of Scott Miller’s Loud Family) and KC Bowman. Their influences are clear to any listener, from the power-pop of the 70s running through Big Star to Skaught’s mentor Scott Miller and his various bands, with the British Invasion and the harmonies of West Coast pop also present and entirely correct.
Boxer at Rest was recorded partly in the absence of Lenny Gill, who had left to have a heart transplant (a previous heart operation provided the title of 2011 album Fixed Hearts), and the uncertainty over this outcome delayed the album’s release and factored into the lyrics and sound: just as the death of Scott Miller informed 2013 album We Need the Rain. Gill made a full recovery, just in time for the contemplative lyrics of the album to coincidentally make perfect sense in the context of 2020. In an interview with All Round Records last April, Skaught talked about the context of the songs, in terms of living in Oakland, California, but also how the songs’ themes of struggle and loss fit into a more general theme: “..we’ve lost some really good friends and people from our musical circles, and on top of that the struggles of our times and places – the political landscape, wealth disparity, gentrification, this feeling of things fraying around the edges…”.
The music, in the context of rock, of power-pop and of the West Coast music scene, is magnificent. Opener “You were all light” – reminiscent of the XTC title “We’re all Light” – has a riff any band would kill for and lyrically contrasts our perhaps naïve optimism “stumble through towns pure and free” with the cold reality of life “Time, buries its thorns in our side…”. The chorus chimes with any lover of power-pop. (And ends with a run of chords that was maddeningly familiar to me until I realised it reminded me of Jesus Jones – just in case it drives you mad too). The second chorus is followed by a quiet interlude in which “the roads we haunt will rise to meet us”: possibly a nod to PiL: then a horn section joins in and backs an exquisite little guitar part which ends the track: a lesser musical intelligence would begin the track with this horn section and riff in place, it takes real musical nous to hold such hooks until the end of a song.
“How Do We Stay” is a brief, further melody strewn rumination on loss: “Now that you’re out of our reach, how do we stay”, with gorgeous harmonies and counterpoint, a brief but spot-on tribute to similar power-pop of the past. Backing vocals on the album are partially provided by Kelly Atkins.
“So True” is a slower, longer, more developed piece, still about loss and the transformation of your beloved environment. “All our secrets in piles Left outside where the dogs can find them”. There is a feeling of a better life, or a past life one is nostalgic for, that can no longer quite be captured. “Speakers sputtered to life Something caught between stations now Gone, let me quick write it down”. The guitar solo which ends the song circles around the lost realm, bringing to mind perhaps a Roxy Music solo, something not quite capturable from the past.
“Baby it’s still you”, with its cod-country opening transforms into something of a new-wave Elvis Costello track, with the lyrics again hinting at some kind of radical emergency – “Hey girl when the ground started shaking under you And the sparks in the hillside then what did you do?” – but the girl who is the target seems immune to such considerations, “You’re lost and on your own but still golden, So hard to be alone and still golden”: remaining oneself in the midst of catastrophe being the hardest challenge. Lovely horn section again in this song.
“Words and Signs” is Bradley singing alone and a guitar, ending the first half with another song of loss and regret, “Wandering through our old town I couldn’t find the rooms, Where we once sang”, with the narrator finding solace only in memories and images in the wires: “All the way home I hear the chorus, Spinning in my head, And hear the words , And see the signs”.
“Watch them Chime” is the optimistic mirror of that song, with the close harmonies and chiming riffs of pure power-pop telling us “Feel the sunshine on our heads, We will, I know we will”, the repetition and staccato accent on the chorus accentuating the fact to us. The chaos engendered by change, and by the loss and desolation wrought by time being the enemy to shine at.
“War is Still Hell” is the statement that should hardly need to be made, “we’re never going to leave you baby”, but Skaught asks of broken hearts “Do they ever burn?”. The cheerful sounding chorus continues ironically saying “City streets are floods of violence, Stamp your soul in waters rising”. The song has Skaught’s voice, close to Lennon at times but perhaps missing his sneering venom in lines like “We can’t fall much further can we baby?”. Still the use of power-pop to itemise the failed report card of humanity is effective in its contrast.
“If it gets light” is the centrepiece of the album, a conclusion to all the loss and the loss yet to come, which is that we deal with what comes as it comes. The opening outlines what might have happened: “Did you feel the cold on New Year’s Day? City flavored air in death’s own ray”: oblique but clear references to real and potential loss and death. The guitar is great, detailing danger, feeding into and from the lyric: we are warned to “Fear the words and fear the stars that burn right through your curtains drawn”. The extended soloing is great and pulls out these ideas from the song, an underlying menace drawn through. With the finale though we move into more melodic and brighter zones, with the chorus becoming “Hey, if it gets light it gets light, Let’s see how the day comes”. An exhortation to take whatever comes and make, well, light of it.
“All our Friends” is a “thank you and goodnight” song harking back to “Thank You Friends” from Big Star, its opening call of “Days, We love you all our days” of course bringing the Kinks to mind. It’s a simple song about friendship and the families we make, only with the sad note that those friends may all not actually be here: “We watch all the flowers bloom, We name them all after you”, ending with that bitter-sweet refrain.
Overall, The Bye-Bye Blackbirds provide us once again pitch-perfect power-pop, accidentally fitting in with the themes of the year with content delayed from last year, positive outlooks tempered with awareness of the darkness outside the campfire.
Bye Bye Blackbirds on Bandcamp